By JOSIAH J. MADIGAN
Question: Name the six guitarists who have played with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Answer: Hillel Slovak, John Frusciante, Arik Marshall, Jesse Tobias, Dave Navarro, and John Frusciante. Ok, I'm cheating, but it's still a fact that Frusciante has been the Chili Peppers' guitarist on two separate occasions; following founding member Slovak's death from 1988 to 1992, and once again from 1998 up to the present. Oft considered the finest of the Peppers' guitar players (or at least the best suited to the band's style), Frusciante brought an oblique, jazzy angle to funk in the same way Andy Summers reinterpreted reggae for The Police.
Frusciante's solo explorations are in no way reminiscent of Summer's own new age prog-fusion instrumentals, however, and a better reference point might be Blur's Graham Coxon. The quintessential Britpop guitarist surprised a lot of people with his lovely and overlooked (if somewhat slight) The Sky Is Too High in 1998. Similarly, Frusciante's brand new album, To Record Only Water for Ten Days, will confound anyone expecting a funk workout reminiscent of his day job. Like Coxon, Frusciante prefers to wind down on his own time, and in this case the results are 15 short, pretty and mostly laid-back pop songs.
To Record is not Frusciante's first solo work. 1995's Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt and 1997's Smile From the Streets You Hold were of a mold similar to his current album, but were plagued by inconsistent writing, and a singing and playing style that could be described as unhinged. The two releases seemed to be confirmation both of his enormous talent and reported descent into severe heroin addiction.
Now reportedly clean, Frusciante has left his old problems off his new record. Smiling in his liner notes, he plays everything himself, including the role of producer. Backed only by his guitars, drum machines, and occasional bleeps, keyboards, strings and marimbas, each track is nevertheless a rich melange of melodic and timbral ideas. There will inevitably be those put off by the simple boom-chick of the drum machine and the absence of bass lines, and it would be a nice contrast to hear these songs performed by a sympathetic backing band, but the overall intimate ambiance is key to the project's feel. While his voice is often distorted, the sound of the instruments is clear, and guitars ring and chime nicely.
Saddled with the workmanlike vocals that have seemingly beset all solo guitarists since Keith Richards, Frusciante's singing is the album's largest revelation. At last comfortable with the sound of his own voice, To Record bears no traces of the occasional frightened yodeling that marred his earlier recordings. Not concerned with commercial prettiness, Frusciante immerses himself completely, and the result is some of the most emotional and expressive rock singing in recent memory (witness the alternation between howl and wavering falsetto on "In Rime"). He's helped by his lyrics, which are evocative and thankfully never too random. Largely despondent, lines like "Oh please take us / We're wrong / We live now to relive on and on" repeatedly hint at his past.
Consistency in an album is a good thing--often the best albums are those that establish an ineffable sonic lineament that's distinctive yet uniform across the range of the album. By this standard, To Record gets a congratulatory sticker: The songs on the album don't quite sound like anything else so much as each other, yet each has its own minor key sound and layered guitars. While his instrumental work is generally uncomplicated, it's marked by the same unique style of melodic progressions that stamps his Chili Peppers work (the coda of "Around the World," on the recent Californication is a good example, as is the opening melody of the title track). The opening track, "Going Inside," begins with a brief but excellent feedback-driven solo. The track, along with others like "Remain" and "Fallout" has a distinctly Middle-Eastern melodic feel. Perhaps not coincidentally, these songs, together with the lovely instrumental "Murderers" and the near-perfect pop song "Moments Have You," are the standouts on the album. The songs are mostly in a similar shuffling tempo--there are no particularly fast ones--but "The First Season" and "Saturation" are slower than the rest. Nearly every track is strong, although "Someone's" and "Wind Up Space" are slightly repetitive, and less inventive.
In To Record, Frusciante has created a marvel of restrained, melancholy power pop where less is more. As someone once remarked of a Sun Ra piano solo, "Anyone could have played that. But no one else could have thought of it."
To Record Only Water for Ten Days